Ohio State Murders
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 4, 2007
There is a good play somewhere inside Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders. The story itself—a dark, sad tale about racism on a 1950s Midwestern college campus—is chock full of gripping potential. But that potential goes completely unreleased in the story's current incarnation, and that is solely because Kennedy's play is not a play: it is a lecture. Not a lecture in the finger-wagging sense, but a lecture in the conveyance-of-information sense. Events are recalled and characters introduced, but all in a passive way that resembles a presentation more academic than dramatic. Considering both the subject and the playwright's stature, Ohio State Murders is bizarrely anemic.
Granted, the play is actually structured as a lecture: the protagonist, an African American writer named Suzanne Alexander, returns to her college alma mater, Ohio State University, to give a talk about the violent imagery in her literary work. Hence, she unfolds a tale that is meant to explain the appearance of said imagery. Her story involves a secret interracial liaison, the birth of mixed-race twins, and the eventually brutal fallout from both. Along the way there are many instances of Suzanne facing campus racism, both obvious and subtle.
The play vacillates between past and present, with events from the story playing out on stage as Suzanne describes them. This, it turns out, is Ohio State Murders's main problem. With Suzanne telling us everything that's happening while we're watching it happen, the entire play becomes redundant. The heroine's story, while well-told, does not belong on stage under these circumstances. Kennedy might do better to make it a memoir or a short story because her syntax and construction is more literary than dramatic. Add to that the strange experience of watching what's being talked about actually happen on the other side of the stage (often pantomimed in dimmer light), and a cold distance begins to grow between the actors and the audience. Everything that occurs registers across the threshold, but none of it moves or stirs.
The conceit of Suzanne's nostalgic reflection may also play a part in this. The entire crux of the play's action occurs so far in the past that none of it ever becomes urgent. Everything has already happened, so there's nothing at stake anymore.
Not to mention that Kennedy's protagonist never takes a stance on the alleged injustices perpetrated against her. Or maybe it's Kennedy herself who doesn't take a stance? Ohio State Murders seems to operate from the point of view that simply stating its numerous racial snubs is enough. But, it's not. If Kennedy wants the audience to feel a certain way about the events in her play, she's got to give us more than that.
The cast and crew do a serviceable job, but there's nothing for them to work with here. Director Evan Yionoulis goes out of her way to jazz the script up with some nicely done projections and sound/music cues (thanks to designers Leah Gelpe, Mike Yionoulis, and Sarah Pickett). LisaGay Hamilton leads an earnest cast that includes Cherise Booth, Kobi Libii, Aleta Mitchell, Julia Pace Mitchell, and Saxon Palmer. Everyone emerges miraculously unscathed considering that the script gives them nothing meaty or tangible to play.
With a script this lax and inactive, Ohio State Murders strikes me as an unfortunate waste of Theatre for a New Audience's resources and the audience's time.